Why my friends are breaching Gaza's separation fence

Why my friends are breaching Gaza's separation fence
For most Gazans the separation line perfectly embodies Israeli oppression and the hardship living in what a former British prime minister called 'an open-air prison', writes Muhammad Shehada.
6 min read
23 May, 2018
Palestinian boy pictured trying to tear down the separation fence [Getty]
My 30-year-old Gazan friend, Ibrahim, is a sweet fisherman from al-Shati refugee camp. Having grown up amid the tides and winds of the Mediterranean, Ibrahim's greatest dream is to sail unstopped and bring back home adventurous stories that he may share with a wife and children yet to come.

Yet his fins are bound to a city whose waters are sealed by naval blockade and whose horizon is obliterated by barbed wire. Ibrahim and most of his friends have been severed from their livelihoods and dreams for 11 years.

Over the past month, Ibrahim's parents cried blood as they desperately begged their son not to join the protests at the separation fence. His cousins even offered him money to stay home. His mother dropped to her knees and clung to his leg so that he wouldn't leave - she knows wholeheartedly that if he kept attending the protest, he would inevitably return someday in a coffin.

Yet, the man asks himself, what life is waiting at home anyway? And no-one has the moral courage to lecture him when, at the refugee camps, Gazans experience death hundreds of times a day, while at the protests, one may die once - or break free.

Spiritless, futureless and blinded by anger, Ibrahim flirted with death for the eighth Friday in a row last week; the first time, he stood inactively among the masses and screamed his lungs out. His screams were echoed along the fence that isolates Gaza while it races towards becoming uninhabitable in less than two years. The Israeli military responded to the screams provocatively with live bullets and extreme violence.

The second Friday, Ibrahim was shot in the arm while running to the fence with a tyre. The sniper, Ibrahim believes, was aiming for his chest but he puts his survival down to divine intervention.

On the fifth Friday, Ibrahim was hit in the face with a teargas canister, but he managed to breach the fence twice and led a whole group behind him. He then hid motionless behind a pile of sand until the Red Cross intervened and evacuated them after sunset.

Like most protesters, Ibrahim took great pride in breaking out of Gaza's confinement, but also in trying to bring down the fence that cages the population into what one Haaretz editorial called "the Palestinian Ghetto". Former Prime Minister David Cameron called Gaza "an open-air prison", and distinguished Hebrew University Professor Baruch Kimmerling called "the largest concentration camp ever to exist".

The following Fridays, Ibrahim continued trying to challenge Israel's criminal blockade, despite fainting under the strong teargas, and incurring further injuries. His family has never given up trying to hold him back, but they know that as long as he dreams of living a normal life, he'll keep trying to bring down his cage, until they receive the heartbreaking news of his martyrdom.

Most young Gazans share Ibrahim's hatred of this fence. It is perceived to have cut tens of thousands from their jobs and devastated the future of others. From the eastern fence, all wars started; it's from here the Israeli army advanced into the coastal enclave and scorched entire neighbourhoods, and the angel of death roamed through the refugee camps and stole 500 children in 2014 alone.
Its fence is nothing but a separation line between life and death, the future and going nowhere

Israel has no defined borders and extends its sovereignty illegally over Gaza's air, land and water. Its fence is nothing but a separation line between life and death, the future and going nowhere. This fence is usually a window that Gazans stare through, at Israelis leading a normal and organised life from which they are essentially deprived.

Such a window doesn't only awaken jealousy in one's heart, but also anger - how could the people on the other side turn a blind eye of hemispatial neglect to what is being done to us all those years? How could the world never look back at us in the eye and ask themselves "why on earth have two million civilians been chained to the ground and forced to watch their children drink poisoned water for 11 years?
How could two million civilians become faceless objects whose death is neglected or even sometimes cheered?"

The hatred of the fence unites many people here to try to stand up against it, but despair is yet more of a motivation. As the protests went on, fewer people have joined the ranks of flag-waving marchers and more joined Ibrahim's side in trying to break out of the siege by setting tyres on fire, throwing stones or breaching the fence.

The participants and organisers of the march alike have been drowning in despair and losing hope that the free world will ever stand by their side

The participants and organisers of the march alike have been drowning in despair and losing hope that the free world will ever stand by their side. People here think that nothing Gazans do matters any more, in such a hypocritical environment. That nobody cares and nothing whatsoever could change the current unlivable status quo. For not only is the international community still standing idly, but the Israeli military seems to fire at will without any fear of consequences.

At the time of writing, the Israeli military had killed 112 civilians and wounded 13,000 since protests began on March 30.

Israel's rules of engagement are perhaps captured in recent footage of a conversation between two Israeli soldiers, documented by B'tselem. One solider advises the other not to shoot at people from a distance, because "they'll run away", but to rather to wait until they come close and then shoot - so that at least one is turned into a cautionary tale with a permanent disability, and his plight will teach the others not to join these marches or throw stones.

This criminal pattern of targeting unarmed civilians; mostly young, is best manifested in the persistent use of "butterfly bullets" - explosive rounds that cause permanent and life-changing disabilities. Israel reproduced the racist term "dead baby strategy" that has its origins in Apartheid South Africa to dehumanise the dead and describe their brutal murder as self-inflicted.

The UN's Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process proposed to Israel a simple alternative: "Stop shooting at children." Yet the words of Israel's Major-General Oren Shachor reiterate: "If we kill their families, that will frighten them."

The easiest alternative to end the entire protest and stop the masses from swarming to the fence is for Israel to comply with international law and allow life to find its way back to Gaza. An immediate unconditional removal of the illegal blockade would restore calm, instead of desperately provoking the Gazan masses in an attempt to teach them that non-violence isn't the way forward.

If such a lesson is taught and the march's death passes unnoticed, half of the masses will fall back into depression, and the other half will resort to violence and launching primitive projectiles into Israel.

Although no small or large armed group launched a single improvised "rocket" since the beginning of the march, the death of the current non-violent calls for rescue will only empower the hardliners in armed groups to retaliate after the dozens of deaths, through a war of survival to break out of the blockade at any cost.

To avoid such a fate, leaders from all political factions are pushing strongly to keep the protests going. The indefinite continuity of the march is Gaza's last rapidly eroding shield, whose survival prevents Gaza from falling into chaos and destruction.

Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He was the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights.

Follow us on Twitter: @The_NewArab